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Summer Adventures Part 2 – The Backyard Backlot to Broadway

 
My childhood summers weren’t all the glitz and glamor of vacationing with cousins, wobbly shopping carts and bloody feet. Actually, most of my summer days were spent right at home in my yard. My parents never took a vacation. Our family never packed its bags and took off for other ports of call.  I never boarded a plane, a boat, or a train for a family adventure. My adventures were self-created. They were products of an imaginative mind that could travel to the moon, ride the rapids in the Amazon Jungle and lead a battle for the Knights of the Round Table, all before a lunch of Spaghettios with a side of Hawaiian Punch.

I have always loved going to the movies. This helped provide the inspiration to my over active mind. The Saturday afternoon matinee was a childhood staple for me. The smell of fresh popcorn as you entered the lobby and the crisp cold air of the air-conditioned theater helped set the atmosphere on those hot, summer afternoons. I would get lost in the dark with my popcorn and Sno-caps. The Grove Theater was my Saturday hangout. This was the 1960’s, before the 16-theater multi-plex with stadium seating. The movie screen was above a stage with a curtain, so that when the lights would dim for the show to start, the curtain would open to reveal the screen. I still remember the anticipation and excitement as the curtain would slowly part and the movie would flicker to life.  I loved action adventure, horror, or sci-fi movies. I would watch a Disney classic like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and want to go home and pretend I was on the submarine the Nautilus.  I could be Kirk Douglas; we both had the same chin.

Whatever movie I saw, whether it was The Time Machine, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins or Dracula has Risen from the Grave, it was incorporated into my playtime. At home, my back porch became a ship for pirates and the yard was the ocean. My backyard became MGM or Warner Brothers – a backlot for my imagination.

I was the producer, director, and actor for all my playacting.  My neighborhood friends, who I had to carefully select, would get to play on my set. While most children have vivid imaginations and can create imaginary worlds, my imagination was slightly skewed. I had a greater flair for the wild and dramatic. So while most kids on the block were playing kick ball or dodge ball, I was decorating the castle and planning one. I liked the detail of the story. I wanted to create a scene not just in my head but also with props. If I was going to be ship wrecked on an uncharted island, I wanted supplies from the HMS Bounty. I remember creating beds with crates and woolen army blankets and setting up camp in my yard, before I could pretend I was stranded in the jungle.

My cousin Joey would come to visit in the summer and stay for a few days, and I would have the most wonderful time creating worlds for us to explore. He was more the athletic and Boy Scout type, but he was a good sport and always played along as we created tents from quilts, wore our grandmother’s aprons around our necks as Super Hero capes, used brooms as paddles for our canoe trip up the Mississippi. We would also spend hours playing with Matchbox cars and G.I. Joe. We liked the television show The Time Tunnel, so we would be the two scientists traveling from one time period to another.

We always survived all our adventures, unscathed, although there were times when we lived on the edge.  I remember discussing using the clothesline in the yard as a tightrope on several occasions. I guess logic and a bad sense of balance won out.  Also, we both bought play army pup tents to set-up a military bivouac. The green tents were made of heavy plastic.  A plastic tent pitched in the full sun of a summer afternoon is not recommended for hours of frolicking fun.  I didn’t realize we were setting up an ancient sweat lodge.  Between the hot plastic tent and the woolen blanket used for flooring, we had created a children’s sauna. By the time we both realized it wasn’t going to work, we oozed out of the tent like warm tar. Looking back at the experience, I wonder what company would have created a child’s play tent made out of heavy plastic? Perhaps, the same company that created Hand Grenade Badminton or Asbestos Playhouse. 

My cousin and I had a great camaraderie. There was only several years’ difference in our ages, so Joey was like my brother growing up.  I looked up to and respected him.  I loved the times he would come and stay with us, and often wished he could replace my sister. Maybe we could pawn her off to the gypsies or the Jehovah Witnesses. She would do a good job distributing The Watchtower.

My sister, Gail and I have an eight-year difference in our ages. Growing up, this a big gap for children. I was always the pesky, annoying little brother. I know that there were numerous times when my sister begged my mom to return me to the hospital.  There was a slightly adversarial relationship during our formative years.  Especially when I was going through my James Bond phase, and would tape record my sister saying goodnight to her boyfriend on our sun porch.  I never knew what valuable information I could extract from those passionate moments, and Gail never knew which tooth she wanted to extract from my mouth during tape playback.  She did manage to get revenge once in awhile. Like the time my dad replaced the rope on your backyard swing to bungee cord, and Gail catapulted me across the neighborhood. I was the “flying young man on the daring trapeze.”  After I removed the twigs, leaves and feathers from my hair and clothing I had picked up on my way through the trees, I managed to find my way back home, much to Gail’s chagrin.   

There were also times when things weren’t contentious. Like when I was asleep or when I was actually allowed to play with my sister. We both loved reading and Gail would take me to the library where Dr. Seuss became my friend.  Also, we shared a creative streak. and I was always interested anytime Gail wanted to put on a show.

Gail taught me about the wonders of the stage and performing. Our childhood home sat on a fairly deep lot and there was a six-room bungalow on the same property. There was our house and a backyard then the bungalow, with a small yard behind the bungalow and a wooden one-car garage.  There was a large porch that ran the width of the bungalow which Gail made her stage. The porch faced our backyard, so it was a perfect platform for hours of make-believe fun.  No one lived in the bungalow, so it was ours to roam. My backlot had an open-air theater.

My sister and her friends would dance and sing wearing old gowns that someone’s aunt wore as a cabaret singer. They would invite the neighborhood kids to be their audience. Sometimes there was a story and other times it was like a musical review. There were occasions, when I had been extra nice or Gail was feeling magnanimous, that I could participate in the show. I was allowed to hover in the background as a Pip to Gail’s Gladys Knight. This certainly gave me a feeling of the grandeur of the stage and a captive audience. I saw that I not only had Hollywood in my backyard; I had Broadway too.  At that point, I knew deep down to the rubber soles of my Keds sneakers that I had found a new outlet for creative expression.

My first experience with a Pelham Puppet was when a neighborhood friend received one as a gift. Pelham Puppets were wooden marionettes manufactured in England that were sold in toys stores and in the Sears Wish Book. My friend had been given Pinocchio as a present, and one look at this puppet, and I was enraptured. He stood about 12 inches high and was brightly painted and dressed in style all the way to the feather in his cap. I just knew at the moment I saw the marionette, that I had to have one too.  Some innate sense was calling to the Puppet Master in me.  There were strings to pull, shows to produce, characters to create. Watch out Jim Henson, the kid from New Jersey is about to take off.


Over the course of several years, and a lot of dropping hints to my parents and any relative who would listen to me, I received my Pelham Puppets. First, Santa was kind enough to bring me Hansel and Gretel. This was a good move on Santa’s part. Better to start with a duo instead of a single act. This was much better for promotion and to show my dexterity as a two-fisted puppeteer.  I then received Red Riding Hood, The Big, Bad Wolf, a Fairy Princess, a Sailor, and a Horse. My troupe was complete. My merry group of wooden thespians was assembled and ready to perform. My marionette Schubert Theater arrived as another Christmas gift in the form of a six-foot tall cardboard puppet stage complete with a curtain and printed footlights. 


I was a very shy child, and have always been an introvert, so my desire to want to perform fit very well with puppets. What a great way to entertain vicariously through the puppets. I could be out on stage through one of my characters, and I only had to pull the strings and mouth the words. I could remain behind the curtain, controlling the action, but not have to be in it.

I did my conceptual work and dress rehearsals with my parents and cousins. I gathered scenery from an old Shirley Temple TV Theater play set that had been Gail’s.

Although the scenery was slightly off scale from the larger puppets, it provided a great backdrop to my performances.  I had musical accompaniment for each show, thanks to a portable Singer record player that belonged to Gail. As I took over the backyard stage with my theater of puppets, my sister was really my benefactor as the supplier of music and sets.

I staged my first summer performance by passing leaflets through the neighborhood advertising my puppet show.  The admittance to the show was 25 cents with a promise of refreshments.  I would enlist a friend to work concession as I manned the main stage.  We closed the driveway gate not allowing entrance until curtain time. I was surprised to see the number of neighborhood children assembling for my show.  There were lawn chairs, crates and a blanket spread on the ground for the audience. I was either going to amuse and entertain the kids in my neighborhood or close after the first act to critical disdain. I took a deep breath, told my puppets to break a wooden leg and started the record player.

The production which was an alternate version of “Red Riding Hood” featuring Red singing “Baby Love” by the Supremes, the Wolf doing a rendition of “Standing in the Shadows of Love” by the Four Tops, the Sailor (our hero) performing “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” by Jimmy Ruffin, and Gretel (the next door neighbor) belting out “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas. The contemporary music was a hit with the audience and I received rave reviews. Which means no one asked me to return his or her quarter. I was off to a brilliant start.

There was never more than one performance of each show due to the size of my audience. As a regional theater, I wasn’t bringing in the bus tours. I had a repeat crowd, and thankfully, they kept coming back for more.  My creative direction was at a peak, and the shows varied in style and form.  My performers worked well as a string lead repertoire company, and they always could vary their roles. Red Riding Hood could easily be a damsel in distress and Gretel had a wide range of German peasant girls she could play.  The musical score was decided by whatever current 45’s my sister was willing to let me use. Motown was usually the driving force, except when my mom bought me the soundtrack from The Sound of Music.  There was never a more poignant moment, when the Rogers & Hammerstein overture would start as the curtain rose, and Gretel (as Maria Von Trapp) would bound onto the stage bursting into “The Hills are Alive….” I think I actually received a standing ovation or someone’s lawn chair broke.

I had a wonderful first season. There was never a performance when I didn’t have a rapt audience. Sometimes the audience would ask for more when the show was done, and I would provide an encore. A couple of extra songs were added, as I thumbed through the record collection looking for a song I hadn’t played recently or a crowd favorite. The Beatles or the Beach Boys were always patron pleasers, and I could always get a sing-a-long started. The puppets on stage swaying to “Let it Be” and the audience on blankets singing in the summer afternoon sun, it was like a wooden Woodstock – Peace, Love and Puppetry.

When Labor Day rolled around my theater went dark and the troupe went on hiatus. They were all tucked safely in their boxes under my bed, providing my muse for the coming summer season. I had many plans for my puppet theater. I was buying a flashlight for a dramatic spotlight effect for overcast afternoons, and I was going to ask my grandmother to make me a new curtain. I had to keep my fickle fans enthralled, so a change or an added attraction was always a good thing. I didn’t want the neighborhood kids to decide that jump rope or an afternoon swim was a better choice than attending my off-off-off-off Broadway Theater.

During the first winter, break for my puppets, we suffered a tragic lose to the pine limbed troupe. Our family’s Siamese cat, Piwacket, went under my bed and defecated on Hansel’s head. It was a tragic setback to an upcoming young actor, but Hansel knew he could not continue as a dramatic performer with a cat turd imbedded in his hair and on his face. He decided he would try the Catskill circuit as a comedian. He opened his act with the statement “Boy! did I get shitfaced last night” and his tag line became “Do you smell something?”  Gretel took it very well, as she realized she could be independent and didn’t have to work for breadcrumbs.

I never publicized Hansel’s departure from the show, and no one ever asked. We would receive a random postcard from him at first, and then all communication stopped. The last I heard, he had hit hard times, and was making an Adult Puppet film showing full wood.  I felt bad that Hansel’s career had turned to crap, but I had other puppets to worry about.  Summer was approaching and there was pocket change to be made.


My second season was an even bigger success, and I took my show on the road. Several times, my puppet stage and I would travel around the block to a friend’s yard, where I would perform and she would sell homemade cupcakes. I became known as the “puppet guy”. Kids wanting to know when I would present my next show often stopped me in my neighborhood. The pressure to create and perform overtook me, and I turned to snow cones, fudgsicles, and Mr. Softee. I had the extra money now, since box office receipts were up. I was able to feed my new habit for the finer things without hitting up my mom’s wallet.

There was nothing better than waiting to see that neon glow at the end of the block and hear the familiar theme song of Mr. Softee as the white truck entered the neighborhood. It was the onetime when my mother allowed us outside in our pajamas.  “He’s here, he’s here,” I would yell, with change flying in all directions. What a way to end a difficult day in stage production then with a large cone of frozen custard goodness. I could lick away the tension with a double dip cone of chocolate and vanilla.  As I lay on my bed, filled with frozen delight, I knew that the show must go on. My public needed me, and I needed to wear the heavy crown of fame. I could be the star of Franklin Street. It is much better to be singled out with a reputation for entertaining the neighborhood, then to be known as the kid who smells like moth balls, or the playground pants wetter.

I needed new material, so I used my soundtrack of the musical film Oliver.  A new puppet production was born. The Wolf played a convincing Fagin, and I took a creative twist with the Horse playing The Artful Dodger. Casting roles was a challenge, since my troupe was limited. I believed in diversity, and what was wrong with a horse playing a young British street urchin?

My backyard during those childhood summers saw many performances. There was nothing more exciting then the curtain going up and the pop of the needle hitting the groove on the record as the orchestra sprung to life. I was a hit with the sandbox crowd – an Andrew Lloyd Webber of the tot lot. As a child, we revel in our creativity, and my puppets and stage were an extension of my personality. There comes a point in growing up when we allow our peer groups to begin directing our interests. When teddy bears, dolls and puppets have to be shelved, or you just become that creepy kid who still plays with toys.

I don’t remember exactly when my theater went dark, the curtain came down and the puppets went into storage.  It was probably sometime in my early teens. I realized that if I was going to continue with puppetry, I needed a more professional stage. I had outgrown the cardboard one from Sears. I had begun planning a major production of Jesus Christ Superstar, with new sets and stereo sound. Gretel had agreed to stretch her acting abilities and play the role of Jesus with a carefully applied robe and a glued on beard.  Alas, this never came to fruition as monetary restraints and teen angst took over.

I lost my puppet mojo, and dimmed the lights on my backlot.  I got caught into what was considered “age appropriate” behavior, and searched out other ways to express my creativity.  I went through model building, oil painting, decoupage, hand-painted wooden pins and plaques; hand sewn felt Christmas ornaments, “dip-n-drape” figures, macramé, and tole painting.  I found that there was a certain draw towards writing for me, as I got older. My creativity could flow with words and not be tied to the end of a string.

Whatever individual issues we face as adults, there is always the societal norms of being a responsible person, being financially independent and being successful to make mom and dad proud. Somewhere along the path to being myself, I took a detour that set me on a different course. I’ve spent a great deal of time being a cog in the corporate wheel where creativity becomes generic and someone else is the puppet master.

I realize now as I have started writing again, that the little kid is still there waiting to put on a show. My recollections of a younger me, reveal that creative expression is what enlivens me. It is something I crave and I want. While my puppets were destroyed in a fire and can longer be brought out to stage a revival, I can create a new arena with my blog. I can attract an audience that will be entertained and want to come back for more. So grab an edge of the blanket, and a cup of grape juice, the show is about to begin.




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